Reading the headlines over the past week, I’m beginning to wonder if there’s a single agency in the United States government that conservatives haven’t left in worse shape than they found it. I’ve been reading about demoralized government employees, under-resourced departments, and agencies left in shambles after eight years of Republican rule.
A few days after the election I participated in a telephone survey about the outcome. The surveyor, at one point, asked me how I felt about the Bush administration and the congressional Republicans. After a couple of tries at explaining conservative failure, I finally blurted out, “People hate government, and don’t believe it can do any good, just can’t govern effectively.”
After this week, I think I’d probably amend that statement. Conservatives don’t believe government doesn’t work. They believe it shouldn’t. And when they get elected they make damn sure it can’t.
In the middle of a financial crisis, we find out that Homeland Security has failed to oversee billions of dollars in equipment purchases.
The Homeland Security Department has done a poor job overseeing the purchase of billions of dollars of equipment and technology since the agency was created five years ago, according to a federal report scheduled for release today.
Senior department officials have “not provided the oversight needed” to ensure that purchases “with important national security objectives” function properly and stay on budget, according to Congress’ Government Accountability Office (GAO).
The GAO report is the latest to raise questions about the Homeland Security Department, which Congress has criticized for gaps in aviation security, a faltering response to Hurricane Katrina and slow progress in securing land borders.
The new report levels criticism at a complex process Homeland Security has used to beef up the nation’s defenses by purchasing security equipment, including machines that scan suitcases for bombs.
In many cases, programs were delayed or went over budget, including planned improvements in Coast Guard rescues, luggage screening and the capture and removal of illegal migrants.
In the middle of a housing crisis, we find out that HUD has been neglected these past eight years.
The Obama administration will soon inherit a $35 billion federal housing agency that was a weak backbencher during the housing crisis and moved too late to do much to keep millions of families from going into foreclosure.
Beyond the pressing crisis, the Department of Housing and Urban Development also has dramatically retreated in the past eight years from its mission of fostering affordable housing. Pushing homeownership has been the agency’s top priority under the Bush administration, and HUD’s budget for public housing for low-income families has been cut year after year.
In a pre-election letter sent to HUD employees through their union, Barack Obama wrote: “As we tackle the effects of the current fiscal crisis on Americans, HUD must be part of the solution. The Department’s mission — to promote affordable quality housing and community development available to all without discrimination — is critical to the well-being of millions of working families.”
Experts on housing finance and poverty cheer the sentiments but warn the president-elect’s advisers that the long-neglected agency will require hefty amounts of taxpayer money, aggressive leadership and a culture shift of sorts.
That cultural shift will be needed across several agencies, given that federal employees have been demoralized by eight years of conservative rule. (Well, wouldn’t you be demoralized working for people who hate the very idea that your job even exists?)
As The Washington Post reported this week, President-elect Barack Obama wrote American Federation of Government Employees in October promising that he would do everything in his power to rebuild the federal service. He also promised to protect collective bargaining rights and to restore funding cuts that have eviscerated the federal government’s ability to faithfully execute the laws.
The past eight years have been a horror to many federal employees. The Bush administration has rarely missed an opportunity to criticize, cut and meddle, and it dismissed the notion that federal employees need more freedom to innovate and learn. As former vice president Al Gore rightly argued, federal employees are not the problem in poor performance. It is the bureaucracy in which they are trapped.
The Bush administration, however, decided that the best way to reform government was to outsource it. From 2001 to 2005, civilian employment remained at 1.8 million, more or less, while the estimated number of contractor jobs surged from 4.4 million to 7.6 million.
Contractors are now responsible for tasks that include writing requests for proposals, monitoring contract performance and providing management analysis. Contractors are also front and center in disbursing the $700 billion bailout, in no small measure because the Bush administration made no effort to strengthen the government’s core capacity to monitor the complicated instruments that caused the financial meltdown.
And meddle the Bush administration has. Bush’s EPA, most recently, has changed air quality rules for national parks, over the dissent of regional administrators. At the FDA scientists charge top health officials with “serious misconduct” in ignoring scientists’ concerns about approving for sale unsafe or ineffective medical devices. Meanwhile, despite its claims to the contrary, the Bush administration is moving to move as many of its political appointees into career positions as possible, making it harder for the incoming administration to appoint its own people.
And whoever ends up appointed as Secretary of State is going to face an under-resourced department on day one.
The next secretary of state not only will face the challenge of repairing the nation’s tattered image and grappling with an array of global crises and hot spots, but also must solve a problem closer to home: reforming an under-resourced State Department to handle its growing duties, such as rebuilding war-torn societies, coping with worldwide pandemics and working with other countries to curb global warming.
“In the last eight years, we have significantly reinvented and transformed every national security agency except the Department of State,” said Philip D. Zelikow, who served as counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. “Our core Foreign Service officers and aid officers are not large enough to play the role that’s been cast for them, nor do we have the training establishment to prepare them for their roles.”
…”The next president and the next secretary come into office at a time when our economy is in recession, our military is tied down and our reputation is tarnished,” said Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Diplomatic tools are arguably the one set of instruments that are available. It’s a natural moment for American diplomacy.”
But the past two years have brought a flurry of testimony and reports questioning the capacity of the U.S. government to carry out its foreign policy. They cite the relative underfunding of State Department personnel, especially compared with the resources that have poured into the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security in the years following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. They have criticized State’s efforts to convey a positive U.S. image abroad. And they have questioned the training and readiness of the Foreign Service to carry out functions beyond traditional diplomacy, such as advising Third World governments on training police officers, setting up judicial systems and holding fair and free elections.
The secretary of state “lacks the tools — people, competencies, authorities, program and funding — to execute the President’s foreign policies,” according to a report last month from the American Academy of Diplomacy and the Henry L. Stimson Center.
Take all that in while you consider the $600 billion the Pentagon paid for reconstruction projects in Iraq that were shoddily done or unfinished (and the way-behind-schedule sewage treatment plant that’s over its $100 million budget, and the auditors who go easy on military contractors), the $185,481 we’re replacing for a contractor who abandoned it while fleeing Iraq, the $13 billion wasted or stolen in Iraq, the $6 billion spent on private security in Iraq (since we fired the Iraqi police), the utter lack of oversight on the bailout (with $290 billion already spent, and a huge windfall for banks hidden inside), millions wasted on no-bid contracts after Katrina, etc., and you’d be forgiven for wondering there’s an effort underway to drain the treasury as much as possible and trash the place on their way out.
This is all being reported just under two months before inauguration. It makes you wonder what we’ll learn after the Obama administration moves in.
Never mind rescuing the economy, the next administration may have to rebuild the government at the same time.